If you’ve seen one Salman Khan film, you’ve seen them all. Ek Tha Tiger (“There Once Was a Tiger”) is more polished than most of Khan’s films, but it still feels like something I’ve seen a dozen times before.
To put Khan in context for American moviegoers, he’s something like an Indian Steven Seagal. Whether Seagal stars in Hard to Kill, Under Siege, or Above the Law, it’s impossible to think of the characters as having their own individual identities: they are always, unmistakably Steven Seagal. Khan is the same way, playing the same macho action hero in all of his films from at least the last five years.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Khan was hilarious in Dabangg, a film that embraced his typical character and took it to the extreme for great comic effect. But the limitations of the “Khan” character make it hard to be surprised by any of his movies. Ek Tha Tiger is no different, despite having the expertise and lavish budget of a powerful production house like Yash Raj Films.
Khan plays Tiger, a spy employed by RAW, India’s version of the CIA. Using his superhuman wits and strength, Tiger outsmarts the agents of Pakistan’s equivalent spy agency, ISI. Tiger’s devotion to duty means that he has never had time for love, even though all of the women in his neighborhood swoon at the sight of him. He dresses like a dork and has trouble talking to women, in particular a lovely young woman named Zoya (Katrina Kaif).
Zoya is a student at Dublin’s Trinity College and a part-time assistant to an eccentric professor. RAW suspects the professor of unwittingly giving information about India’s missile defense systems to an ISI agent, and Tiger is sent to Dublin to investigate the professor’s contacts. Tiger woos Zoya as part of his mission and accidentally falls in love with her in the process.
The first half of the film feels a lot like last year’s Bodyguard, although Ek Tha Tiger isn’t as cheesy. The second half of the film raises some interesting themes, as Tiger questions whether his duty is worth sacrificing his personal happiness, especially when he suspects that the enmity between RAW and ISI may actually be keeping India and Pakistan from resolving their differences peacefully.
If you’ve never seen a Salman Khan film before, Ek Tha Tiger is a decent introduction. The production values are high, despite some shoddy CGI and an obvious instance of Khan’s face being Photoshopped on to his stunt double’s body during the opening action scene. The locations — Dublin, Istanbul, and Havana — are interesting and beautifully shot. Given American embargoes against travel to Cuba, I found the Havana scenes particularly novel.
While the incidental music in Ek Tha Tiger is sometimes corny, most of the songs in the film are pretty good. The best number, “Mashallah,” plays during the closing credits, so don’t leave the theater early.
The supporting cast is also decent. Kaif’s performance is solid, although her character is responsible for staging the worst play ever, which features a ridiculous bastardization of Pinocchio‘s “I’ve Got No Strings.” Ranvir Shorey is very good as Tiger’s best friend and fellow agent, Gopi.
As always, Salman Khan is Salman Khan. Fans of his films will find Ek Tha Tiger right in their wheelhouse. If, like me, you aren’t completely charmed by his superhuman heroics and occasional topless shots, Ek Tha Tiger is probably best reserved for DVD. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just nothing new.